Prairie Chickens, Excerpt from the Book: Prairie Autumn By John D. Taylor

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Prairie Chickens, Excerpt from the Book: Prairie Autumn By John D. Taylor

Buy The Book: Thanks to John D. Taylor we have and excerpt from his book: Prairie Autumn 528 pages, $42 from, Copyrights 2011

The prairie chicken ranks first among the game birds of the prairies of our Middle West. It is to the prairie what the ruffed grouse is to the wooded sections of the country.
Dr. Alfred O. Gross: Life Histories of North America's Gallinaceous Birds 1932
If a creature can epitomize a landscape—as Dall sheep are emblematic of Alaska's mountains; as moose symbolize Maine; as pheasants brand South Dakota—then the prairie chicken should be an icon of prairie. No matter how you come at it, three species of this mid-continental grouse—the greater, the lesser and Attwater's prairie chickens—represent prairie's quintessential upland game birds. All are birds of landscape-scale grasslands, not farmer Joe's back-40 corn patch. Their very existence depends on wild, wide-open spaces; the general absence of human beings. Prairie, in their names, is a righteous reflection of place.
Yet when I write "prairie," what critter first pops into your mind? It's probably not the prairie chicken. This is probably so because it's easier for a Montana-bound tourist, traveling 1-90, to exit the interstate for Route 240, South Dakota's Badlands National Park scenic byway, and claimed to have experienced prairie—to see buffalo, pronghorns and prairie dogs—than to get up close and personal with a prairie chicken.
There are only two ways to know prairie chickens: One method takes place with binoculars, in an Audubon Society lek-viewing blind, in the chill of an April dawn. The other happens in the midst of prairie during late September, over pointing dogs, when lemon-breasted meadowlarks sing port and starboard and dry grass crunches underfoot.
April's way is good, fascinating. Yet after a time, it grows unsatisfactory because there are always rarer birds to witness and list—chasing a list is quintessentially trophy hunting—and in the rush to know these, a lek can lose its appeal.
The finality of September's connection method is a responsibility few in this age of plastic-wrapped groceries want to experience. Yet to hold a prairie chicken in your hand, to admire the well-feathered yellowish legs; the squared, stubby tail; those drab yet wonderfully beautiful barred feathers; to heft this prize, is the most honest way to know prairie chickens. When eaten—and if you take the life offered to you in a way most holy and ancient, your obligation is to honor the gift by consuming it—this bird actually becomes you. Never again can you claim these birds to be unknown; and never again will you take a Sunday afternoon drive without knowing that even such a small indulgence might mean doom for an island of prairie chicken habitat, when their world is invaded for land to plant to corn, to make ethanol, to replace the gas you burned. Is such a steep price for knowledge worth it? Many times, I believe so.
Re-reading Dr. Alfred Gross's thoughts on prairie chickens—including this chapter's introductory quote—more than 75 years after he set them down is its own interesting journey, because the rest of this quote is as important today as it was in 1932.
In a single sentence, Gross succinctly describes the prairie chicken's natural history, "As intensive agriculture pushed to all sections of the range of the prairie chicken and as interest in hunting increased, this fine game bird at one time seemed in grave danger of following the course taken by the heath hen, to extinction as a game bird." Prairie chickens were, Gross wrote during the late 1920s, when he was studying the birds in Wisconsin, "...holding [their] own and...increasing [their] numbers in many sections of [their] present range. Another hopeful sign is the fact that it has been expanding its range to the northwest, and today the species is well represented on the prairies of Manitoba and is gradually spreading westward through Saskatchewan and Alberta, where formerly it did not exist."
Gross entered the prairie chicken arena during an odd time in the bird's natural history.
During the early 1930s, when he was writing about prairie chickens for the Smithsonian—using his experiences studying Wisconsin prairie chickens during the 1920s—he had good reason to believe the birds would reach the end of the 20th century in good shape, perhaps in even greater numbers, because his research showed this was happening. Yet during the next 90 years, prairie chicken numbers peaked, then fell precipitously, with Attwater's chicken reaching the brink of extinction. So how did this internationally-recognized ornithologist, who studied the demise of the heath hen, the prairie chicken's eastern cousin, miss the chicken's 20th century future?
The story of Gross, prairie chickens and the rapid changes faced by all grassland birds coming through the 20th century are intertwined like grapevines on an arbor. It's a story worth retelling, especially for its implications to the bird's 21st century future.
Gross grew up on an Atwood, Illinois' tallgrass farm, the youngest of nine siblings, during the 1890s. His German immigrant family did well in America. Papa (Henry) owned Atwood's mercantile and a large farm.
Young Alfred's early interests in birds and natural history were fostered by the farm and an older brother, who taught him to hunt. However, bookish Alfred didn't like farm work. So, after graduating Atwood High as the class of 1900 valedictorian, he sought higher education; and won a full scholarship to the University of Illinois Academy.


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